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Oh, Father, we come in prayer because we need You, I need You. You have told us that all Scripture is breathed out by You, is profitable, is inspired, even the chapters that may not on first blush seem so inspiring. So help us now as we come to Your Word, help us to listen well, to truly listen, to understand, to learn the lessons You have for us, to be reminded of the things that we have forgotten, to see our sin, to see our Savior. We pray You would do all of this through Your Word. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
I invite you to turn in your Bibles to Genesis chapter 20, the first book of the Bible, Genesis chapter 20. After taking a break over the summer, we now return to our series in Genesis. If you’re new to the church, welcome. What we do usually, morning and evening, is we work through a book of the Bible. We believe that that’s the best way to get the whole counsel of God, to hear not just what I might want to say or what the headlines in the news would tell us to say, but what God wants to say to us, week after week. So we move through verse by verse, book by book, chapter by chapter, and sometimes we come to chapters that are well-known and famous and easy to understand, and sometimes we come to ones that are less well-known.
This morning, we come to Genesis 20. Follow along as I read.
“From there Abraham journeyed toward the territory of the Negeb and lived between Kadesh and Shur; and he sojourned in Gerar. And Abraham said of Sarah his wife, “She is my sister.” And Abimelech king of Gerar sent and took Sarah. But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night and said to him, “Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is a man’s wife.” Now Abimelech had not approached her. So he said, “Lord, will you kill an innocent people? Did he not himself say to me, ‘She is my sister’? And she herself said, ‘He is my brother.’ In the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands I have done this.” Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart, and it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her. Now then, return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, so that he will pray for you, and you shall live. But if you do not return her, know that you shall surely die, you and all who are yours.””
“So Abimelech rose early in the morning and called all his servants and told them all these things. And the men were very much afraid. Then Abimelech called Abraham and said to him, “What have you done to us? And how have I sinned against you, that you have brought on me and my kingdom a great sin? You have done to me things that ought not to be done.” And Abimelech said to Abraham, “What did you see, that you did this thing?” Abraham said, “I did it because I thought, ‘There is no fear of God at all in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.’ Besides, she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father though not the daughter of my mother, and she became my wife. And when God caused me to wander from my father’s house, I said to her, ‘This is the kindness you must do me: at every place to which we come, say of me, “He is my brother.”’” Then Abimelech took sheep and oxen, and male servants and female servants, and gave them to Abraham, and returned Sarah his wife to him. And Abimelech said, “Behold, my land is before you; dwell where it pleases you.” To Sarah he said, “Behold, I have given your brother a thousand pieces of silver. It is a sign of your innocence in the eyes of all who are with you, and before everyone you are vindicated.” Then Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech, and also healed his wife and female slaves so that they bore children. For the Lord had closed all the wombs of the house of Abimelech because of Sarah, Abraham’s wife.”
To be honest, at first glance, this looks like a relatively unimportant story. In fact, it seems quite redundant. We might even wonder why it’s here in the first place, and if it is necessary at all, and if you were to read liberal scholars and commentaries, they would speculate about a number of source theories and say that these sister-wive stories are repeated and are just taken from some common source and then manipulated, and maybe not even original.
In fact, if we’ve studied the book of Genesis before, you know that in Genesis 12 there’s another one of these, and coming up later with Isaac there will be a third one of these, passing off your wife as your sister story, and they proceed along the same lines that the patriarch is afraid and so he concocts this plan of deception to lie or tell a half-truth to deceive the foreign king, and then this leads to his wife being taken and near disaster, but then at the end of it he receives phenomenal blessing and he escapes. This is basically the same progression of events we saw in chapter 12 when Abraham and Sarah were traveling because of the famine down to Egypt.
And so you might be forgiven for coming to chapter 20 and thinking, “Can’t we just get on with the rest of the story? We’ve already seen this play before and we have really big news coming up in chapter 1, the birth of Isaac, that’s kind of what this story has been about. Why do we need another detour and another tale of deception?”
And yet, once we slow down and pay attention to the details, what I hope you’ll find, and what I found in studying it this week, is that almost all of the major themes of Genesis are here in this apparently irrelevant story. We see here the fickleness and the failures of God’s people. Great Abraham, who’s had great moments of spiritual triumph, now here he is again looking at his worst. That’s very much like us.
We see again the indestructibility of God’s promise that the result of this story again is that God’s promise to Abraham to bless him, and often it’s not blessing because of Abraham but blessing in spite of Abraham, that it comes true. We see here again the promise that Abraham will be a blessing and a curse to the nations, that when you treat Abraham poorly, bad things happen. When you treat him well, good things happen. And we see her again God, the sovereign One, who opens and closes the womb. We’re going to see all of those themes as we work through these 18 verses.
Our outline is simple, and I hope you have your Bible open as we work through these verses. Our outline is simple. We can unpack this story in four parts.
Number one – the problem. Number two – the first conversation between God and Abimelech, and then the second conversation, this one between Abimelech and Abraham, and then the fourth part is the resolution. So problem, conversation one, conversation two, resolution.
Look then at the problem. We can deal with this quickly. It’s in verses one and two. Abraham journeyed from there, where? Where presumably he was before in Mamre, and he moves south to the territory of the Negeb, or some translations the Negev. It simply means south. He’s going down south to the desert, towards the Sinai Peninsula. And he comes to the Philistine city of Gerar, and he’s still a sojourner. He’s been promised this land that he’s traveling in, but at this point he is still a sojourner in it, he hasn’t inherited it.
And very similar to the story in chapter 12, where Abraham and Sarai flee to Egypt during the famine, but here a different event, and as we just read this is actually a pattern with Abraham. This was actually a strategy when they set out from Ur of the Chaldees. Apparently this was a common predicament, especially for rich and famous men like Abraham.
It’s a strange thing. This happens in any culture. You have some things that the culture gets really right, and some things that it gets really wrong, and you can never just say it’s all one or the other.
So apparently in the ancient near East they held marriage in high regard. We cannot take another man’s wife. Committing adultery is a sin. And you see that here. Even this pagan king recognizes, “Oh, no, what have I done? Marriage is sacred. I do not commit adultery. Adultery, no. Murder, eh. So we can kill him, but I can’t just take his wife.” So that’s why they concoct the plan wherever they go, okay, and they convince themselves, or maybe it’s just Abraham doing the convincing probably, and Sarah is going along with it, maybe feeling like she didn’t have much choice, this is how I love my husband, and she’s going to say my brother, this is my sister, and Abraham convinces her, well, technically, you know, you are like a half-sister, and so they lie.
And again, hoping to avoid death from this king, who’s going to say, “Ah, I want this wife of his,” we don’t know why. In the story in chapter 12, now that’s many years prior, the story in chapter 12 we read that it’s because of her great beauty. Now we don’t read that here, she is in her 90s, 90-year-olds out there, you’re beautiful also. She is going to live to be 127, so maybe you do the percentage math and it’s like she’s in her late 50s or something, I don’t know. It doesn’t mention if it’s beauty or what it is. It may simply be that he wants to have a marriage alliance. Almost certainly he has other wives and concubines, as most of these pagan kings would have, but he thinks, “Aha, it’s just his sister,” so he doesn’t kill Abraham, but he takes Sarah to come into his household and to be his wife.
Remember, Abraham is not just an ordinary man at this point. He is a very wealthy man. He is almost a king in his own right. He has a large retinue of livestock and servants. He’s defeated other kings. So this man comes into his territory, two very powerful men, and so he does this sister ruse again, and Abimelech takes Sarah to be his wife. Abimelech, we’re going to find, does this later and you’re tempted to think Abimelech, you fell for it again with Isaac? It may not be the same Abimelech. Abi-melech simply means “my father is king,” and it’s likely that Abi-melech is more of a royal title, like Pharaoh, so President, King, Pharaoh, Abimelech, this may not be his first name but a given royal title for the king or the leader of this people.
Once again, we have this problem. Sarah has been captured by a powerful foreign king. So what’s going to happen?
That leads to part two, our first conversation between God and Abimelech in verses 3 through 7. Immediately God comes to Abimelech in a dream. This is not the type of dream you want to have, where the first words from God, “Behold, you’re dead. You are a dead man.” That’s a scary dream.
Like God announcing to Nineveh, “Forty days and you will be destroyed.” But like that, there’s a number of parallels here between the story with Jonah and the Ninevites. Because Jonah comes to the Ninevites and just says God’s message, 40 days you’re destroyed. But implicit, implicit in the announcement of judgment is always the opportunity to repent, it turn, and to be forgiven, to have an expression of God’s grace.
And so Abimelech here asserts his innocence, and as we’ll see, God affirms that he is innocent. But he still has to do the right thing by returning Sarah, providing Abraham with a gift to right the wrong, and that’s what comes at the end.
I’m going to remind you of one of these, there’s no way around it, one of these nerdy seminary terms, but there’s a cool one in here to see. Remember if you were here months ago we talked about a chiasm. What is a, it’s spelled c-h-i-a-s-m, from the Greek letter Chi, which kind of looks like an X, so imagine an X, sort of like a funnel going this way and a funnel going that way. It’s actually, the Greek word is pronounced “key”, which is convenient for us in English because it sort of looks like a keyhole. You can think of it that way.
And so you have, it’s a literary device called a chiasm, where you have sort of A and then down here A prime, you call it, then B, B prime, so you have this going down here and then you have in reverse order the same sort of story going out, and the point is to see what’s in the middle.
So if I were to say to you very simply, “I walked my dog,” we don’t have a dog thankfully, “I walked my dog in the park, in the park did my canine roam.” That would be a chiasm. “Walked my dog in the park,” and then reverse order, “in the park my canine roam.” Very simple.
Well, you have a chiasm here, and notice it. So you’re going to need your Bible open. Look at verse 3: “Behold, you are a dead man.” You can call that A in the funnel going down. You go to the end of the speech, and you find the same thing on the back side. So verse 7, “For he is a prophet, so he will pray for you, and you shall live. But if you do not return her, you shall die.”
So the story, the conversation, begins, “you’re dead,” it ends, “here’s how you can live.”
Go back up to verse 3. Here’s the B and the B prime. So you see, “Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken.” So you took a woman. Now go down to verse 7: “Now then, return the man’s wife.” You took the woman, now the back side of the story, return the woman. That’s B prime.
Go back up to verse 4. Here’s what we could call C. “Now Abimelech had not approached her. So he said, ‘Lord, will you kill an innocent people?'” and then in verse 6, at the end, the Lord said, “It is I who kept you from sinning.” So will you kill an innocent people, the Lord says “I have kept you and made you an innocent person.”
One more, D and D prime. Go up to verse 5. “Did he not say, ‘She is my sister’? ‘He is my brother.” In the integrity of my heart I have done this.” And then to verse 6, “Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart.”
So you could trace this out, A, B, C, D, and then in reverse order, D, C, B, A.
Now the point, besides, oh, that’s kind of interesting, I think I see that, what’s in the middle? Well, what’s in the middle of all of that is the very beginning of verse 6, “Then God said to him in a dream” and the emphasis there is upon God as the director of all of these events. God as the one directing the course of human events, that in the middle of all of this, which seems to be chaos, seems to be the promise in jeopardy, God said to him in a dream, God has not for one second lost control of the situation.
Do you believe that? Do you believe that with the pandemic? Do you believe that with Afghanistan? Do you believe that wherever you read bad news in the world? God has not for a moment lost control.
Now, the king was innocent. Remember I said there’s parallels with the story of Jonah. Jonah’s one of those stories where the foreigners actually come out looking much better than God’s servant. Same here. Remember in Jonah’s story. The men on the boat fear God more than Jonah does. Jonah’s going to run away from God. The men on the boat say, “Oh, this storm, we’re in danger,” and they throw Jonah overboard. The people of Nineveh repent even when Jonah has a hard heart. The foreign people come out looking better than God’s servant, and so it happens in this story, that Abraham doesn’t look so good. This king actually has more fear of the Lord before his eyes.
However, let’s not give Abimelech too much credit. It’s true, Abimelech is right to defend himself. He didn’t know Sarah was married. He wasn’t trying to commit adultery, and he didn’t commit adultery, but if he would have laid with her, it would have been a sin. It is possible, even when we do something out of ignorance, that it’s still sin.
But notice again the Lord is in control. He says in verse 6, “I know you have done this in the integrity of your heart, and it was I who kept you from sinning.” Now how did God keep Abimelech from sinning? Well, this is going to be a little bit earthy, but go over to verse 17: “Abimelech prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech.” So Abimelech had been cursed with some sort of malfunction, dysfunction, disease, some sort of problem, and also healed his wife and female slaves so they bore children.
So it seems that what God had done to the women he had done in some commensurate sense to Abimelech, and made them unable to reproduce. So most of the commentaries say that Abimelech had been afflicted with some sort of sexual malady, or sexual dysfunction of some kind, and that’s what the Lord did preventing him for however many weeks or maybe months that Sarah was with him that he never went to her as a husband to a wife. So the Lord was in control.
The Lord was directing all of these affairs and never forget that in our absolutely chaotic, sinful, sin-stained world, God is the writer, the director, and the producer of this story.
Now He’s not the one, listen carefully, He is never the one who is the actor of evil and sin. We are responsible because we are the ones who act and do the sin. We are not puppets on a string that God coerces us by some external compulsion, like when you did to your younger brother, you grabbed his fist and said, “Stop punching yourself, stop punching yourself, stop punching yourself.” That’s not what God does. That’s not how He controls the world. That’s external coercion and compulsion.
But by an over-arching sovereignty, He so rules over everything. He is not in a panic, even if we are. I am, I’m sure as guilty of this as any of you, doing the doom scrolling and just, is there more bad? Oh, there is. There’s always more bad news. And the answer, of course, is not to be ignorant of things going on in the world and how we might pray and how we might help and serve, but it is easy to be absolutely overwhelmed with the sort of burdens that only God is meant to carry. You’re not meant to carry the burdens of 7 billion people. You can’t. You hear it, you grieve, you pray, and we must have absolute confidence that in the middle of our story, just like in the middle of Abimelech’s story, is God directing, God controlling, God at the wheel.
Here’s the second conversation. The third part of this story. That was the conversation between God and Abimelech. Now verses 8 through 13 we have a conversation between Abimelech and Abraham. Notice in verse 8, Abimelech fears God. He may not have his theology very squared away, he probably thinks of this God as one of many gods, but he does rise early in the morning and tell all of his servants, and they are afraid. It’s at least a start. Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. It’s not the end, but it is the beginning.
He rebukes Abraham. He says, in effect, “Abraham, what were you thinking? You trying to ruin my life? Why did you do this to me?”
And notice, Abraham tries to defend himself. He gives, beginning in verse 13, three excuses for his behavior.
Number one, he says, “Well, there’s no fear of God in this place. I knew that you would kill me.”
Well, Abraham hasn’t gotten this one right. And even if it were the case, there is something worse than death. This is the mark of the godly man or woman: They fear sin more than they fear suffering. They fear sin more than fear suffering.
And as you pray for people and loved ones, here and far, and naturally we pray for them to have an end to their suffering, whatever it may be, wars or famine or cancer or ordinary disappointments in life, we pray for an end to their suffering. Right, we should. But do you pray that God would keep them safe even more so from sin?
So Abraham was wrong to think that, well, sin is okay if it gives me out of suffering. And besides, Abraham was wrong that there was no fear of God in this place. There actually was a great deal of fear of God.
Part of what we’re seeing is, remember this comes after chapter 19, Sodom is destroyed, not every pagan city is as bad as Sodom. Not every pagan king is like the king of Sodom. Here we have one by God’s common grace who has a basic respect for God in so far as he understands God.
So that’s Abraham’s first excuse – it’s not a good one.
Second excuse: Technically, she’s my sister. Technically, she’s my sister. Well, that was technically true. She was a half-sister. Now later in the Mosaic law marrying your half-sister in this way is going to be outlawed, so part of what the Israelites as they read this are meant to see is this is not even a good excuse because Abraham’s doing what later God is going to prohibit, and even if there was technically truth to the matter, his intention was to deceive. They knew very well how people would understand them and that was the whole point, that they would lie.
We convince ourselves, well, there’s a way in which what I am saying I technically can defend as being true, but when your intention is absolutely to deceive, we ought to know better. Not a good excuse.
Here’s the third excuse: God made me a wanderer, he says. God made me a wanderer, verse 13, and so I had to take some precautions. And this was the plan all along, “If you love me, Sarah, you’ll share in this lie with me.” Whether she was happy to go along with it or not, I tend to think certainly not, has made her to be a pawn in his own ambitions.
Let’s take stock of what Abraham has said in his defense. He’s talked about the supposed impiety of the Philistines. He’s talked about Sarah’s technical relationship to him. And he’s talked about God making him a wanderer. So who’s to blame, Abraham? Well, he says, “Well, it’s kind of your fault. It’s kind of Sarah. It’s kind of God. That’s basically.”
Isn’t that a lot like us? Who’s to blame for your sin? Well, I can think of a whole lot of people. The one person I don’t think of is, well, me. It might be your fault. It might be my wife’s fault. Might be God’s fault. Me? My fault? Certainly not.
We all do this. Especially with the sins we commit so easily. Are there problems in your life right now, and you’re looking everywhere for an excuse, except the one place you’re not looking is in the mirror. The common denominator in all of the malfunctions and problems in your life might just be you. Me.
Of course, sometimes we are truly victims of others and truly not to blame. That’s certainly the case. But it is all too common that we would take upon ourselves a sort of heart like Abraham: “No, no, no, I got a lot of reasons. I can list you a lot of reasons here.” But it was Abraham’s sin.
And it was a besetting sin. Familiar with that term. It’s an old sort of churchy language, I know. A besetting sin, sins that seem so easy that we fall into them and we run after them over and over again.
Cultures have besetting sins. If you think about Christians in, say, the 18th century, they would have had an almost zero tolerance policy for sexual sin. Now they would have committed sins privately. It’s not that they didn’t commit sexual sins. There always have been sexual sins. But publicly, they would have seen very clearly sexual sin as a big no-no, and they would have had all sorts of stigmas against it.
And if you go and you read Christians from the 18th century, you know that they were pretty blind to racism at times. Pretty blind to the sin of slavery at times. It was a besetting sin of that culture, and we have to be honest.
And we have almost the flipside in our century. There is a great deal of stigma around racism. Now people are still bound to be racist privately, but publicly there is almost no sin that would be denounced more quickly than that one. We have our eyes attuned and alert and a near zero tolerance for it.
And isn’t it just the opposite from say the 18th century, and we would have a great, great besetting sin of sexual immorality, so much a part of the air we breathe. You can hardly even know that you’re breathing it. Cultures have besetting sins. What the Old Testament might call “high places,” sins that seem so obvious, so much a part of what everyone’s doing, that you can’t even see it.
It’s one of the reasons we need to read widely, listen widely. We need to go in and out of other centuries.
And not just culturally, but we have personal besetting sins. I’m sure you find this in your life. I do. You get into the same sort of situation which gives rise to the same sort of fears and then the same kind of sin.
John ___ in his commentary calls them “deeply worn channels of our corrupt nature,” deeply worn channels. It’s where the sin is bound to flow.
When I was a kid, one of the things I loved to do, we had in the backyard, we had a sandbox, and I would get the hose and I’d dig a big hole and I’d put the hose in there and turn it on part way and I’d let the water flow up and it’d take a few minutes before it overflowed this giant hole, and then I’d just have fun for an hour trying to find places for water to go so it wouldn’t completely swamp the sandbox, and so you’re digging trenches and you’re making dams and you’re digging little rivulets, and great fun, just to see where you can get the overflowing water to do. And of course, it travels down, it finds low places, and as you have a bank, it will travel through these little streams.
Same thing happens in our hearts. Sin finds the low places, it finds those well-worn grooves in your corrupt nature, in my corrupt nature. Do you ever find yourself saying, “Why did I do this again?” The same pattern, whether you feel alone or scared or hurt or discouraged, and so you tell yourself, “I’m not going to do it,” but you do it and you take a drink and too many drinks. Or it’s pills or it’s some other substance, make this feeling go away.
Or after telling yourself for the ten thousandth time you won’t go to that website again, you do. Or after you tell yourself, “I’m not going to talk that way, I’m not going to gossip about people, I’m not going to do the thing where I rally people to my side by talking about, I’m not going to go down the path of self-pity.”
But what happens? You feel hurt. You feel alone. And you go down the well-worn paths of your corrupt nature. Is it anger? Is it bitterness? Is it the avoidance of conflict? Is it people pleasing? Is it lying? One of the reasons, I think, that God gives us three of these stories, and here the second one with Abraham, to give us an example, the great patriarch Abraham, whose had these high moments already of great courage and valor to defeat the kings, to rescue Lot, to pray for Sodom, and yet again with the “my wife is my sister” bit, Abraham? Don’t you want to say, “Abraham. Come on, we did that. Remember? Remember? God had your back. You didn’t need to worry about it.” But here we are again. It’s a well-worn path of our corrupt nature.
And surely it’s true in your life and it’s in my life, I’m not, I’m in the same predicament. There are certain sins in your life, just like with Abraham, and they seem very obvious to other people, and they seem obvious to other people except sometimes to us, and so we need to listen to others. We need to be humble. We need to say, “I’ll seriously consider what you have to say.”
This was one of those things, apparently, that Abraham feared. And what do you do when you’re afraid? When you’re scared? That’s when the devil tempts us and you either, okay, God, I’m afraid, what can man do to me? Or I’m afraid, here’s the comforting pattern, here’s what I do when I’m afraid, and you have that sin. You blow a gasket and you shout and you show your anger, you go to self-medicate, you feel sorry for yourself, whatever it is.
Abraham has a besetting sin.
What do we do with these besetting sins? I’ll give you four quick words.
One – recognize the pattern. Okay, yup, this is a pattern. We’ve done this before. I felt this way before. Here we go again. You recognize the pattern.
Two – remember how it turned out last time. Maybe you remember, yeah, it wasn’t so bad. God helped me. Or you remember, I went the way of my sin and it ended in disaster. Remember what happened last time.
Three – realize you have a choice. This is key. Sometimes our culture tells us you don’t really have choices anymore, you’re just the product of your circumstances, your environment, your genes, your biology, whatever. You realize you have a choice. Okay, I don’t have to go down this path again. Spirit of God is within me, I don’t have to be like this. And then you respond. You respond in faith. When necessary, you respond in repentance. God help me.
You recognize, you remember, you realize, you respond. That’s the third section. The second conversation.
Here we come to the resolution, verses 14 through 18. Problem, conversation, conversation, resolution.
Notice Abimelech gives Abraham three gifts. Well, the most important one is he returns his wife. In addition to that, three gifts. Verse 14 – livestock and servants. Verse 15 – permission to dwell where he wants. And verse 16 – a thousand pieces of silver. Tremendous amount of money.
One scholar estimates it would take a working man 150 years to earn 1000 pieces of silver.
Now though it’s given to Abraham, it’s interesting that that conversation is directed to Sarah, verse 16: “I have given your brother a thousand pieces of silver. It is a sign of your innocence in the eyes of all.” And we’ll see in just a moment why that’s so important in the story of Genesis.
What we clearly see once again is the immutability, the indestructibility, of God’s promise. When Abimelech did wrong by Abraham, even when he did it by accident, it meant cursing, just like God had said. Everyone who curses you, Abraham, I will curse. And even on accident when Abimelech did the wrong thing by taking Sarah to be his wife, curses befall Abimelech and his whole house. And when Abimelech does right by Abraham, even giving Abraham more than he deserves, it means a reversal of all that has gone wrong. Whoever curses you, Abraham, I will curse. Whoever blesses you, I will bless. And so he restores to them. He heals them.
We see here, too, that Abraham, remember his name means “the father of many nations,” is an instrument of blessing to the nations. Not only that as they bless Abraham they receive blessing, but now through the prayers of Abraham. We saw that he interceded for Sodom. Here we see he intercedes for Abimelech. And notice what he prayed for, verse 17: “Then Abraham prayed to God.”
Now it doesn’t say exactly the words of his prayer, but look at the result. It tells us what Abraham had prayed for, “And God healed Abimelech, and healed his wife, and female slaves, so they bore children.”
Now just imagine, a little speculation but not much, imagine what this must have been like. The thing that Abraham had prayed for probably 10,000 times had never come true. His wife had never had a child. How many times do you think Abraham, praying Abraham, said, “God, give us a child. God, give us a child.” And God never to this point had given them a child. The thing he had prayed for a thousand times to no avail, now God answers it for this pagan people. God moves in mysterious ways. We don’t understand why He answers some prayers but not others.
But surely the timing here is significant. It’s no coincidence that this story about the miraculous opening of the womb is here right before the birth of Isaac.
Now do you notice part of what we’re meant to see absolutely clearly is that Abimelech did not lay with Sarah. Did not lay a hand on her. Did nothing with Sarah. Why is that key? Because Sarah for the first time is about to have a baby, and the author Moses, inspired by God, wants to make sure everybody knows there’s no possibly this, well, yeah, she didn’t have a child with Abraham all those years, this must be Abimelech’s child. That’s why there’s such an emphasis. This gift of a thousand pieces of silver in verse 16, it is a sign of your innocence in the eyes of all. It was a public declaration, a vindication, of her marital purity. No, you did nothing wrong, I did not lay with you, your purity is intact. All the eyes were to see that. And God knew they needed to see it because of what He was about to do for Sarah.
Maybe Abraham thought, and maybe God wanted him to think, just for a moment, I prayed, I prayed for Abimelech and his household, and God opened the womb. Maybe, maybe I should pray one more time for Sarah. Maybe, just maybe, what God promised all those years ago is finally about to come true.
So just think about this in closing. One of the things that chapter 20 does for us here, it’s a prelude to the promise. There’s one of these hinges. God keeps Abimelech from implanting his seed in Sarah. The promise was put in jeopardy, again, by Abraham, and then, unbeknownst to him by Abimelech, but God’s plans could not be thwarted by either man. God’s plan to give Sarah a child by Abraham could not be thwarted by the pagan king Abimelech and it could not be thwarted by her bumbling, sinning husband Abraham. God’s promise is indestructible.
Who knows what God might be about to do in our midst? Now we don’t know. We don’t have these same kinds of exact promises. But put yourself in Sarah’s shoes for a moment. Do you think Sarah thought those weeks and months, “How did this happen again? How am I in this strange man’s court? I’m supposed to be with Abraham. I’m supposed to be a mother. God told me that a year from hence I would have a child and the clock is ticking and it’s almost been a year. That’s what God’s promised and I can’t believe it’s all going to be ruined here in the court of this strange man.”
But it wasn’t. Everything was about to turn and everything promised was about to come true. No matter how impossible, no matter how much it seemed to Sarah in that moment, surely this is not the way it’s supposed to be going.
I found myself recently writing in emails, maybe you’ve done the same thing, I use expressions like “in these dark days,” “in these confusing days,” “in these trying times,” and all of that’s true. You only have to pay attention to right around us and farther and around the world to have all sorts of reasons to write “in these dark days.” And yet, do you believe that more than being trying, confusing, dark days, they are the days of God’s promise? And His promise is indestructible. His promise to forgive when we repent, His promise to draw near as we draw near to Him, His promise to return to judge the living and the dead, His promise to save all of those who call upon the name of Christ, His promise to work for those who love Him, who are called to according to His purpose, His promise to work all things for the glory of His name, His promise even to do more than we can ask or imagine.
So let us not think that we are all that different from Abraham and Sarah, separated by all sorts of cultural, temporal circumstances and time, and yet we can be prone to the same sorts of besetting sins, the same challenges to trust, the same sense that maybe in this dark, confusing moment God really is not going to come through. But He will. He has. He always does. In surprising ways, but in His way, and better than we dare to ask or imagine.
Let’s pray. Father in heaven, give us grace to receive Your Word, to believe it, to trust it, to live in it. Forgive us for our besetting sins. Help us to turn and lead us in a better path. We pray, O Lord, that You would forgive us, that You would heal us, that You would heal our land, that You would come and give us grace once more. In Jesus we pray. Amen.